Last, lazy day

Apr 21, 2007

Our last real vacation day had no agenda, and the weather was promising, 70 degrees and sunny, so no one was in a hurry to get going. I waited around a while this morning and finally decided to go for a run around 8:30, figuring by the time I got back everyone else would be eating breakfast downstairs, but no, they were all still in the room and Justin was still in his pajamas. I ran up the boardwalk to the end at 40th street and back to the hotel at 16th, about 45 minutes, there were a fair number of people out and about, some in shorts and some wearing sweaters, it was plenty sunny and warm when the breeze off the ocean stopped.

After we finally got everyone moving and had breakfast, we headed out the back door to the beach and spent 90 minutes or so just hanging around, we hadn’t brought much beach gear with us, but Justin kept himself entertained digging in the sand and chloe tried the surf but it was too cold for her to get in much past her knees. We went back to the room about 12:30 to get something to eat. Since we still had pizza left over from last night, beth got a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches from the restaurant downstairs for the kids and we ate right in the room, then just hung out for a while, I dozed off for a while, the kids watched tv, it was a low-key sort of thing. about 3pm we got up enough gumption to go out again and walked around, first down to a few gift shops on the fishing pier, then up Atlantic to check out some of the touristy shops where I got myself a Virginia Beach hat and sweatshirt. That took a couple of hours, and we came back to the room ready to figure out where to go for dinner, our last night out, and after considering various possibilities ended up right next door at the Boardwalk Hotel’s restaurant called Rock Fish, which is a big crab place and has lots of Beatles memorabilia hanging up everywhere. I pigged out on seafood pasta and crab cakes, the kids got chicken fingers but didn’t really eat much, and Beth had a cheeseburger. After dinner we went back to the room, caught the end of the Red Sox game, they beat the Yankees again! Chloe and Justin had some Disney Channel show they wanted to watch, so we let them stay up and check that out, then hustled everyone in to bed to rest up for the long and winding road up I-95 and back home tomorrow.

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Something historical

Apr 20, 2007

Another sunny day today and getting progressively warmer, although still not up to the average for this time of year. Took a while to get everybody out of bed and ready for breakfast. Chloe knew we were off to some historical stuff today, so she lounged around in bed pretending to be asleep, reminding me of Sunday mornings when I was a kid and didn’t want to go to church.

We ate breakfast in the small restaurant in the hotel, which only serves breakfast and lunch and is run by one cook and one waitress, but served up eggs or pancakes or whatever that was just fine, although the bacon was better back at Skyland.

We were heading back up 64 to the Williamsburg area, which I tend to think of as being all part of the same metropolis but is a good hour away from Virginia Beach with no traffic. Our first stop was Presidential Park in Williamsburg, a relatively new place that Beth had just read about in Sunday’s Washington Post magazine section in a pictorial about unique places to visit in the US (another one was Mount Washington in new Hampshire). It’s basically a outdoor path you walk around and look at giant busts of all 42 US presidents, which are each flanked by signs detailing all their vital statistics and interesting facts about them. In the middle is the fuselage of a former Air Force One that you can walk through. Apparently there’s one in South Dakota too. It’s sort of kitschy but kind of interesting and you can’t help but learn something you didn’t know before about at least a couple of the presidents. Most of the busts look just like their pictures, except everyone from Nixon onwards looked much younger than you would expect. We killed about an hour there and checked out the gift shop. It was time for lunch, and there is a café of sorts in the main building, but we decided to find some place more interesting to eat, so we headed on to Yorktown.

No one actually lives in Yorktown any more, as it turns out. The riverfront area of Yorktown looks like it was all built last week, and there are several shops and a restaurant or two along the water, followed by a small man-made beach, and not much else. A couple of blocks inland on Main Street are a bunch of old buildings that you can tour for a fee, and more shops, mostly of antiques or crafty stuff. We walked around a little but really we just wanted to have lunch, so we found a restaurant another block or so along the waterfront and got crabcake sandwiches.

The real destination was the Yorktown battlefield, which is at one end of the Colonial Parkway, the road that connects the battlefield with Historic Jamestown, both run by the national park service. It was nearly 2 when we arrived, and if we were going to get to Jamestown too we didn’t have tons of time. Our timing was such that there was a walking tour led by a park volunteer that was just about to start, so we got in on that and got an overview of the events leading up to the battle of Yorktown (last battle of the Revolutionary War) and what happened during and after. The guy doing the tour was very good, although he didn’t sound like a local, and took nearly an hour. We found a few things in the gift shop and then it was off to Jamestown. There’s a whole driving tour you can take at Yorktown, but nobody was interested in that but me, and it would’ve taken too long to do that and still get to Jamestown.

We drove the Colonial Parkway from one end to the other to get to Jamestown. There seems to be some sort of conflict between the Park Service and the state or the local area or something, as there are alternative venues for both Yorktown and Jamestown with similar names to the Park Service sites but run by the state, the Yorktown Victory Center and Jamestown Settlement or something. When I was buying tickets at Yorktown, everyone ahead of me in line wanted to be at the other Yorktown and the park service people had to tell them how to get there. Other than the fact that it’s more expensive at the state-run ones, I’m not sure what the difference is, except that they do more of a living history thing to try to make it more interesting I suppose, but the Park Service ones are the ones that are on the actual sites being commemorated.

Chloe had been studying the early colonies in school recently and so knew all about both Plymouth and Jamestown, so I thought she might as well see the real thing. the visitor centers at both Jamestown and Yorktown look brand new, and we got to the Jamestown one in time for a short movie that was obviously also brand new as it treated the Indians, blacks and the settlers equitably. Jamestown is much more contained, so you can just walk out the back door and over a swamp to the original settlement and see the remains of some of the buildings, not necessarily from 1607 but from pre-revolutionary times, until the capital was moved to Williamsburg. There is quite a bit of excavation still ongoing, and that is the main focus of Jamestown, but there’s enough to see that we finished up right as they were closing at 5 or so. it was also interesting to get a sense of what the location and the fort looked like, and we were there at about the same time of year as when the colonists first landed 400 years ago. Next month is the big anniversary and George W and Queen Elizabeth are coming to visit.

Although it took us just over an hour to get there, it took nearly two hours to get back to Virginia Beach, thanks to Friday evening traffic, even though the traffic was only bad in a couple of spots. One of them is the tunnel under the harbor, which apparently backs up on a daily basis such that there are automatic signs telling you how long it’s going to take before you even get near it. The Newport News area is kind of a mess too. What’s odd about that whole drive is how many major towns you drive through, with tons of traffic, yet never see any skyline anywhere. It was about 7 when we arrived back at the Breakers and everybody was hungry, so we had decided to go low-key for dinner after last night’s splurge and just get pizza. There’s a local chain called DoughBoys that had a restaurant about a block away, so we got pizza and pasta there. Prior to that we found a grocery store and beth and Chloe ran in and picked up a few odds and ends for the room, since it has a whole efficiency kitchen with a fridge and microwave and everything. Dinner was good, Beth and I got a chicken and pineapple “California-style” pizza, chloe got cheese ravioli, Justin got cheese pizza. The service was adequate but the waitress, while attentive, was surprisingly blasé about everything, this was the only place I can recall asking what kinds of beer they had and being told, in a perfectly sincere way, to go up to the bar and look myself.

After dinner I took the leftover pizza back to the room while beth and the kids hung around on Atlantic Ave and did a little shopping. They came back a half hour later, chloe had gotten a t-shirt and Justin had found a shark tooth necklace. We watched the Red Sox come from behind to beat the Yankees when Mariano Rivera came in as the closer and instead gave up 5 runs. For some reason I was really zonked and passed out just before 11.

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To the beach!

Apr 19, 2007

Today was a travel day, but the distance to travel was not that ambitious, just from Shenandoah to Virginia Beach, about 250 miles. It was still cool and overcast, an occasional sprinkle, so we didn’t feel like we were missing too much by driving much of the day. Took our time getting ready in the morning, had one last breakfast at the lodge, then after we checked out we headed towards Big Meadows and the visitors center one last time, since last time there was no electricity you’ll recall. At the visitors center we got some postcards and such and went through the exhibit there, and then checked out the gift shop at Big Meadows (much smaller than the one at Skyland) and at the wayside store nextdoor, which is mostly food and supplies but has some souvenir stuff too, but didn’t end up buying anything. Gas was the same price there as outside the park, so I filled up the minivan and we were on our way. Never did make it to the last 40 miles or so of Skyland Drive, although there’s not as much going on down there, but it seemed more expedient to exit the park at route 33 and head east from there rather than driving all the way down to Warrensburg.

We were out of the park by 11 or so and heading towards Richmond, zagging onto I-64 at some point. We could eat lunch around lunchtime for once, but nothing special we just stopped at McDonalds before getting on the interstate. It was a straight shot down 64 from there, and we made it through Richmond and Williamsburg to Virginia Beach by around 3:30. went straight to our hotel, the Breakers, which is right on the ocean on Atlantic Avenue, and checked in. all the rooms in the hotel overlook the ocean, and the offseason rate was pretty reasonable, the only catch being you had to call and make reservations the old fashioned way, they didn’t do it online. It was sunny as we got closer to the shore, and starting to warm up a little bit, although still in the ‘50’s. after we unpacked we walked around a bit to check out the boardwalk and the shops along Atlantic until it was time for dinner. The boardwalk has no boards, it’s a big cement strip with a separate bike path running parallel to it. Unlike the boardwalks in new jersey, this one has the ocean on one side and all the hotels on the other, with a few restaurants and the occasional shop along the way, but it seems much more planned out than what we’ve seen in Atlantic City or Wildwood.

Both times that Beth and I were here in the ‘90’s we had eaten dinner at Captain George’s, the famous seafood buffet place that has several locations around the area and is a fixture in local restaurants, having spawned numerous imitators. I’d been looking forward to a repeat visit ever since, and I figured there was no reason to wait any longer, so we hopped back in the car and found our way to the nearest one on Laskin Road, quite a ways away from the shore. While the buffet is huge, the restaurant itself is equally huge, and can accommodate enormous amounts of people. By sheer coincidence, our weekend in Virginia Beach coincides with some sort of high school music festival taking place in Norfolk that the Marlborough band and orchestra were participating in. hordes of kids were converging on the area from all over, and most of them were staying in Virginia Beach, but fortunately not at our hotel (no indoor pool). So of course a huge group of 500 or so (not from Marlborough) showed up at Captain George’s at about the same time as we did. At any other restaurant, this would be a problem, but they could seat them all in two huge function rooms and the buffet line is broken up into several different stations so it was easy to work around people to get what you wanted. Unlike a recent visit back to the buffet at Chef Orient in Framingham while Mom was visiting after being away from it for at least a year, which was a huge disappointment as the quality had taken a nosedive, Captain George’s lived up to my expectations and served up all sorts of great fish and crab dishes, fried shellfish, oysters Rockefeller, crab legs, etc.,etc. I seemed to remember the price being around $18 back then, it’s now $26, but well worth it, the trick is just to pace yourself and not try to eat everything at once. Some people just go for the crab legs and don’t eat much else. There’s also a huge dessert buffet with about 15 different items, the kids were liking that, since they’re not much for seafood.

Back at the room we let them stay up late and watch tv for a while, since they finally had Disney channel again after several days without it.

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White oak canyon

Apr 18, 2007

I figured this morning the restaurant would once again be overrun with bus tour people, and we were out of the room and ready to eat by 8:30, but they were long gone by then, and we could dine in relative peace and quiet. The eggs and toast had been a big hit with the kids yesterday, so they got the same thing again today. They were serving a buffet too, but we thought it was just continental from what we could see and the waitress and hostess were typically unable to spontaneously offer information, so we didn’t realize until we left that it was in fact a full breakfast buffet, presumably because they’d had the tour groups to feed earlier on. Nobody had mentioned the price either, that might’ve provided a clue.

Today was the big hike, up the White Oak Canyon, one of the more popular hikes on the tour and one that was described with fair warning by the ranger yesterday, not only the 110 story building part but that you needed good climbing boots because if you wore sneakers it would “rip them to shreds”. There are two ways to approach this hike, either from the top or the bottom. From the top you only have to go about a mile out the front door from Skyland to the trail head, and you get to do the downhill part first. Much like the Grand Canyon, though, the downside is you have no way to gauge your comfort zone in going back up because you do that part last. Unlike the GC, however, you have the option of starting at the bottom. The downside here is that the trailhead at the base is over an hour’s drive outside of the park. But it seemed prudent to go this route, there are six waterfalls in all, so even if you don’t see all six, at least the second half of the hike is downhill.

Heading out of the park on 211, you have to make 4 right turns over about 20 miles to get to the trailhead, driving through a scenic area of small farms and smaller houses but little that you would call civilization. Although we’d just eaten breakfast, we weren’t going to be able to make it through the hike and back anywhere close to lunch time, but once on the road there was little hope of finding any place to stock up on some food to bring along. Fortunately, at the intersection of two roads that passes for the town of Etlan, there’s a country store that makes the IGA look like Super Stop & Shop, but they seemed to have a cottage industry in supplying hikers to both White Oak Canyon and the Old Rag Trail which is just up the road. They made ham sandwiches for everybody and wrapped them up for the backpack, and Beth got some chips too and it all came to about $15. Thus equipped, we were at the start at 11am and ready to go.

This trail goes all the way up to Skyline Drive, about 4.5 to 5 miles one way, depending on which measurement you believe. Our intent was to hike only to the bottom of the last waterfall, about 3 miles up. The first mile-plus is pretty flat, and parallels the river that is the conduit for all the waterfalls. Almost at the very beginning you had to cross a stream over several wobbly rocks that were just barely above the water line, probably because it’s spring and the water is higher than normal. Everybody made it across ok except Beth, who lost her balance on one of those wobbly rocks but didn’t fall in, just stepping into the water, which was about 6 inches deep, but it was enough to make her want to quit right then. But she persevered, and we were soon on our way up.

This trail is listed as “strenuous” where the Dark Hollow Falls was listed as “moderate” and the Compton Peak as “fairly easy”. These designations are very subjective, even though they try to weigh elevation gain vs. distance vs. terrain in some quantitative fashion, it ends up that you never know until you try whether a trail is hard or not. this one starts out pretty comfortable, and even after it kicks uphill, it’s still reasonably good footing and lots of steps in the steeper places. You could get up pretty close to the first falls, the 2nd and 3rd are well away from the trail down a steep gorge, basically impossible to get right next to, but easy to see through the trees, at least in April when there’s little vegetation. The weather was perfect, cool but no wind, and the sun came out once in awhile, although usually through some thin clouds.

Once you get to the lower falls, the first 3 falls, including the two that are away from the trail, come in relatively quick succession, meanwhile you continue up and up, but nothing too serious. Then comes a stretch of just climbing, which may not be steeper than the previous stretch but the trail has some patches that don’t have steps and you have to walk sideways up those, digging in to the crevasses in the rocks. Beth had gotten us all hiking poles for Christmas, which came in handy in both directions on this trail, although the rubber tips kept coming off. Yesterday Justin must have lost his 3 or 4 times, but miraculously we kept finding it, sometimes even before he knew he lost it. The others disappeared at least once too. In fact at one point I found a tip that didn’t belong to us, so we had an extra for a while.

The fourth falls stretches out over a wide flat expanse of rock that looked perfectly suited to a picnic, but we didn’t want to eat and then keep climbing, so we kept it in mind if we didn’t find something suitable at the top. There were some smaller falls that could’ve qualified as the 5th falls, and then a bigger falls shortly after that, but not one that appeared to be significantly bigger than Dark Hollow Falls, and this last White Oak Canyon falls is the 2nd longest of the whole park. So my thinking was that must have been the 5th falls and we still had to reach the 6th falls, which, according to the trail map, were just ahead. By this time it was around 1:30 and everyone was losing steam, including myself, and if anything the trail seemed steeper than every, although that was probably just trail fatigue kicking in. after rounding one switchback after another with still no further falls in sight, and in fact starting to veer away from the water, I was starting to wonder if we’d seen the last one and just not counted them correctly. So while everyone else took a break I continued up ahead a ways without the pack, just to see if there was an end in sight. After only a hundred feet or so I came upon a trail marker next to a sign, the sign indicating the half way point on the trail, and the marker pointing up to Skyland Drive and down to “base of first falls”, but nothing else. So did we see all 6 falls or not? the map shows that shortly after reaching the last falls, there’s a fire road going off to the left and a horse trail to the right, and we didn’t see either of those. And the pictures I’ve seen of the last falls don’t match what we saw. But the last falls, for being the longest, aren’t necessarily the most spectacular, so I don’t feel like we necessarily missed much.

We turned back and hiked back down to our picnic spot in probably 15 minutes and had a very late lunch (around 2pm by this point) and took our time recuperating. Chloe climbed around on the rocks quite a bit (she’s not much for hiking but loves climbing on rocks), until she slipped and slid into the water up past her knees, soaking her shoes, socks and jeans. But nothing was damaged, so it was squishy walk back down for her. The rest of the climb down was pretty quick, sometimes a little too quick, Chloe fell and landed on her elbow at one point, and Justin lost his footing a couple of times too but didn’t damage anything else beyond the shin-scraping he got on the way up. The flatter part at the end after leaving the falls behind goes on for a while because it’s not really any faster on the way out that it was the first time. We knew that stream still needed to be forded one more time, chloe was well in the lead and crossed over without any problems, not that it matter since she was wet already. Justin went next instead of waiting for me, and lost his balance on probably the same wobbly rock that got Beth, except he flopped on his stomach right on top of the rock, landing on one hand and both knees. Mostly his pride was hurt, he’d been otherwise going full steam all day without any hanging back or having to stop and rest every 3 minutes like at the Grand Canyon. Fortunately it was a short walk back to the car by then, and beth even had an extra pair of pants for him to change into. There’s a portapotty at the parking lot that was extremely handy before starting the hike, but in the intervening time we were on the trail someone had managed to lock the door from the outside (or else someone was inside dead). The whole trip lasted almost exactly 5 hours, including lunch, and we passed maybe 10 people during all that time, some up some down. With much of the trail being in the more temperate zone at the base of the mountain, there were some wildflowers coming up here and there, but most of the trees were still without leaves, which probably made it easier to see the falls from a distance. There were branches down all over the place, some looked fairly recent, between either the wind of the last few days or an ice storm they had here around Thanksgiving, but nothing that completely blocked the trail.

Back in civilization, or what passes for civilization, we stopped back the country store (which is open until 7:30 most days) for ice cream (although I just opted for oreos since you can’t eat ice cream and drive at the same time). Since the power had been out for awhile there too, the generator had preserved the tubs of ice cream but not the separate case full of ice cream bars and other frozen products. We got back on the hard road and made the complementary number of left turns to get back to Skyland, where it was time for dinner. Although not excited at the prospect of eating at the same place yet again, the only other option was to go to Luray instead, and the kids were happy just to get chicken fingers at the bar again, so that’s what we did. This time the place was basically empty, we chatted a bit with the girls working there and just hung out for a while, in no hurry to go anywhere. Bought a few things at the gift shop, which would appear to be the largest one in the park, and headed back to the room to see the follow-up American Idol show, although I was half-asleep by the end when everyone bid goodbye and good riddance to Sanjaya. It was lights-out immediately afterwards for everyone.

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into Shenandoah

Apr 17, 2007

Slept in this morning and took forever to get going and get to breakfast, but there was no huge rush because it was still extremely windy outside. We were back at the lodge for scrambled eggs before 10am, and this time the windows weren’t rattling quite so much, and it wasn’t raining, but it didn’t seem particularly inviting either. The staff at the lodge were an odd assortment of locals and young foreigners, seemingly new to the job and probably not really broken in to dealing with the tourist crowd, as it was often hard to get answers out of people. The lady working in the gift shop last night was the exception.

After breakfast we headed down to the visitors center next to Big Meadows, the other big lodge, to get some hiking info. The entire big meadows area had no electricity since at least yesterday, and while the visitor’s center was open and they were willing to give you a flashlight to browse the gift shop, you couldn’t look at the exhibits or watch the movies. We talked to a ranger who was also assisting another visitor looking for suggestions on waterfall hikes, which is what we were interested in too. The ranger, who was perfectly knowledgeable older guy, seemed intent on talking people out of hiking anything that involved hills, comparing every hike’s elevation gain to the equivalent number of floors in a building. So for instance the Dark Hollow Falls trail, which drops about 300 feet over ¾ of a mile, was likened to climbing up the steps of a 30 story building. And the White Oak Canyon trail, which goes by 6 waterfalls, was the equivalent of climbing a 110 story building. Beth said by the time he was done she was so freaked out she wasn’t sure she could handle any of the trails, last year’s Grand Canyon climb down South Kaibab notwithstanding. When the other woman he was talking to said her husband had just had heart surgery a few months ago, he as well as wouldn’t advise any trail that involved getting out of the car.

Info in hand, but without everything we needed for a hike, we went back to our room to get some more stuff, then back almost to the visitor center again to check out the Dark Hollow Falls trail, which is the shortest trail to a waterfall in the park, clocking in at about three quarters of mile one way. By now it was around lunchtime, but since we’d eaten a late breakfast we forged ahead. Once below the parking lot level, the wind was much less and the sun was even coming out once in a while. It was a quick jog down the trail, we encountered a number of people coming back up, probably heading to lunch. At the bottom, the falls were spectacular, and would’ve been refreshing if it’d been a hot day, but it wasn’t particularly chilly either. Nearing the bottom we came across the same woman who’d talked to the ranger with us earlier, with her husband, who seemed to be a trail veteran and wasn’t about to be put off by some park service guy and was doing just fine on their way back up. Beth commended them for using their own judgment.

The kids did fine at the falls, something we hadn’t seen in a hike back home, although there are some around, mostly in western Mass. Once back at the top it was well past lunch time and no lunch in sight, so we drove south out of the park and headed towards I-81, hoping for civilization, although there wasn’t much to be found on that stretch of road. We ended up purely by chance in a McGaheysville, a wide space in the road that inexplicably had a shiny new Hank’s Smokehouse, with the parking lot suspiciously full of cars at 2 in the afternoon. But there was nothing to be concerned about, other than the twangy Christian country music in the background, and we got some great barbecue and managed to avoid eating fast food.

Rather than going back to Skyline Drive, which is kind of slow going even with no traffic, or heading further to the interstate, which runs parallel to the drive but well to the west, we drove the scenic route in between up to Luray, stopping for more water bottles before heading back into the park at the rt 211 entrance and continuing north to around mile 11 to the Compton Peak trail, another short trail, uphill instead of downhill this time, promising some good scenery at the top and prime examples of some geologic feature called “columnar jointing”. Although it was around 4:30 or so, it was getting kind of dim and the wind was still howling quite a bit, but it wasn’t freezing cold. We hiked a mile or so up the trail to the peak, looked out over the edge, not really sure if we were seeing columnar jointing or not. the fact that the wind kept trying to blow you back from the ridge didn’t help, either. With no leaves on the trees yet up this high, the wind made the trees rub up against each other with squeaking noises, but otherwise we encountered no other people and no wildlife either. It was an easy climb, relatively short, Chloe complained much of the way up, but Justin was in the zone and led the charge most of the time and probably would’ve gone further if we’d asked him to. At the actual peak you can’t see anything, so you have the option of going left or right to get to a view. The sign at the bottom recommends going to the right, what it doesn’t say is that there really isn’t any good columnar jointing there, which must mean it’s to the left. We didn’t know this at the time, and with the windy conditions and everything didn’t want to take the extra time to explore the other path, particularly since we weren’t sure what we were looking for.

Windblown but otherwise unscathed, it was now dinner time and back to Skyland. The meal last night was ok, but more money than it was worth, but rumor had it there was food to be had at the bar also. Beth had seen this morning that the Shenandoah Cloggers were going to be performing tonight in the bar and thought that would be something worth checking out. We got back before the show was to begin, but there were a couple of tour buses full of people filling up the dining room and the show was being relocated to the “Conference Hall”, one of the many buildings on the Skyland grounds, and apparently one without much heat. There was still room in the bar area to eat, we had a much better (and cheaper) meal there, the waitstaff were all locals and very friendly, they explained the whole setup without having to play 20 questions, including that all the old folks from the tour buses were supposed to be at Big Meadows tonight but there was still no power there so Skyland had taken them all, prompting them to move the cloggers to the larger facility, which they cautioned would be very crowded. The kids were happy to just watch American Idol on the bar tv, so we figured that was just as well. After dinner we raced back to the room during a commercial and watched the rest, I haven’t been following it much but the Sanjaya factor made it at least marginally interesting.

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Nobody was moving very fast this morning either, both times we were availing ourselves of the free breakfast in the lobby at close to 9am. It was still cold and windy, just an occasional sprinkle, still not great zoo weather. I was skeptical that we’d see any pandas, but Beth convinced me to go anyway, so we checked out and jumped onto the beltway and a big traffic jam, then got off at Connecticut avenue and another traffic jam, and made it to the zoo around 11. it was seriously windy and pretty chilly, but there are plenty of indoor activities at the zoo, and we went straight to one of them, the Amazonia exhibit, which Beth remembered as being brand new in ’87 but I’d forgotten about entirely. It did look vaguely familiar once we were there, although I’m sure we’ve been somewhere similar more recently. The weather kept the zoo mostly empty the entire time we were there. We started at the southern end and worked our way uphill from Amazonia to the front of the park, past the elephants, to where the new Asia Trail starts that includes the pandas. By then it was past lunch time, but the only place to eat at the north end only had outdoor tables and it wasn’t exactly picnic weather. So we checked out the pandas, who proved me wrong by being out and about, walking around, chewing on bamboo, oblivious to the wind. They also had smaller red pandas that were hanging out in the trees, they didn’t care either. We got lots of pictures, and spent some time at the panda gift shop where you could buy most anything with a panda’s picture on it. By this time it was near 2pm and still no lunch, so we bypassed most of the other exhibits on the way back down and ended up having a late late lunch at the “Mane Restaurant” close to where we came in, which had the same stuff but at least it was indoors (and reasonably priced, too). While admission to the zoo is free, parking is $16 if you stay more than 3 hours, but it still works out to your advantage, if we’d taken the Metro we would’ve paid that much for four of us to get there and back.

It was only 3 or so and we were in no rush to get to Shenandoah since it was still cold and windy. And I mean seriously windy, like gusts to 40mph on a regular basis. We drove down to the mall area and wound around past the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial, where I made everybody get out of the car and walk inside. Even inside the memorial it was cold and windy, we just spent a few minutes there, checked out the gift shop in the basement, then fought a headwind back to the car and found our way to the highway and west to Virginia. By now it was getting towards rush hour and of course there was more traffic, even past the beltway out by Manassas, so it took a little longer than it should have to get to Front Royal and the entrance to the park, but the kids were watching movies so they didn’t care. It was 5:30 when we got to the entrance, which was already closed for the day, so we worked our way down Skyline Drive for 40 miles to the hotel at Skyland, which only took about an hour. There was no one but no one on the road in either direction, but we saw tons of deer right up by the sides of the road, usually in groups of 3 or 4. when Beth and I tried to do Skyland Drive on a previous trip around Virginia back in 1993, it was, to quote that year’s Christmas letter “utterly fogbound”, and there’s not much point to Skyland Drive if you can’t see more than 20 feet. That time we got off and went to Luray Caverns instead. this time fog was not an issue, because it was so freakin’ windy that the car was being buffeted around and there were little branches all over the road and leaves swirling around everywhere. We slowed down for some overlooks, it wasn’t raining but mostly overcast and starting to get dim, but we made it to Skyland after about an hour, around 6:30 or so, and checked in, then got some dinner in the lodge before continuing on to the room. We’re staying in the Craigin building, which promises to have a view, but since it was dark by the time we got to it we’ll just have to check it out in the morning. The wind was howling something fierce all through dinner, rattling the windows and keeping the temperature down around 60. The gift shop was nice and toasty though. The room was also quite warm, but the wind coming through the backdoor off the porch was rattling something in the frame and making this horrible loud growling/farting raspberry sound off and on, starting when I first opened the door to the room, and thought I’d encountered a trapped bear or something. Beth was able to put her camping experience to good use and plugged up the gaps in the backdoor with some towels and a knife and it seems to be holding just fine, but the wind is still blowing constantly. It reminds me of that story I wrote in high school about the guy in a cabin in the wood and the constant wind. Guess it was seeing the future. Except in the story the door rips off the hinges and blows away.

Anyway, we were all in by 9pm or so, there’s no phone service and no internet up here on the mountain top, but there’s still cable tv. Tomorrow is supposed to be more moderate, we’re hoping to get in a hike or two, but if it’s too cold or windy there are other possibilities.

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With only one full day to do Washington, DC, it would have been nice if the weather was half way decent. But instead it was lousy, cold and wind-blown rain most of the day. Fortunately we had plenty of advance warning of this, since it was going to be the same thing in Boston later on, so we decided the zoo probably wouldn’t be the best place to go. Fortunately there are plenty of indoor activities to be had, so we drove to the College Park train station and got all-day passes on the Metro, then rode the train into the mall. Chloe always wants to go to the mall when she’s on vacation, but she knew when we said we were taking her to the mall that this was a different kind of mall. It was just barely raining when we left the hotel, but by the time we got downtown the rain was coming down steadily. Fortunately it wasn’t windy yet, so umbrellas still worked, but it wasn’t conducive to spending time outside. We stopped by the National Archives first, but even at 10:30 or so there was already an hour wait to see the constitution, so we walked passed the national gallery of art (which wasn’t open yet) and ended up at the Air and Space Museum.

There was plenty to see and do there, in spite of part of it being roped off for a new exhibit of planes that doesn’t open until the fall, and another part taken over by an exhibit of highlights from the American History museum, which is closed until next year for a major renovation. We walked through that and saw a diverse cross-section of stuff, from the first typewriter to the first teddy bear to Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. We ate lunch at the McDonalds food court at the far eastern end of the building, which was fine since it was still raining buckets. We saw an Imax show about the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which the kids could relate to since they’ve both done school projects on Mars in the last year or so. And we saw most of the other big stuff, the Wright brothers plane, Skylab, the Apollo lunar module, the moon rock, a short movie about the first 25 years of space flight (which brought it up to 1982, which was probably when it was made). Although there’s still plenty of cool stuff to be seen in the air and space museum, certain exhibits seem a little dated, which is always going to be a problem with the given topic since things change from one year to the next. The imax show was fine, but since no one has brought an imax video camera to Mars yet, most of the footage was CGI. The Wright Bros exhibit was new, with all sorts of info on the evolution of their designs and background on the brothers themselves, with the plane at eye level right in the middle of the room (seems like it was just hanging from the ceiling with everything else before, but maybe not). I don’t think the Gossamer Condor was hanging up anywhere.

By about 3:30 or 4:00 we were done with what we needed to see and it was still raining, so going by the monuments was out since they’re not that close to the metro stations. Instead we hopped back on the subway just a couple of stops to Farragut West, near the White House. We stopped in at a sandwich place for drinks and grabbed a free paper that had a big restaurant guide, and on the back cover was a full page ad for a Morrocan restaurant near dupont Circle. Beth and I had stayed around there the first time we came to DC (which was >cough<>cough<) and I remembered it as being a big restaurant area (unlike near the museums, which don’t seem to have any restaurants, or near the White House where most everything is closed on Sunday, even Starbucks). You can’t get in the white house anymore, but we walked past down the new Pennsylvania Avenue plaza, took a few pictures, and headed back to the Metro. By the time we got out again at Dupont Circle, it had stopped raining for the first time all day. We found the Moroccan place and had a fabulous dinner, and if we could’ve stayed longer we would’ve gotten the belly dancers too. Can’t say we’d had Moroccan food since Epcot when Chloe was a baby. But it was around 7:30 or so and it was still a long ride back to the car and it was now cold and windy instead of raining and the kids were getting annoyingly punchy from the workout and general lack of sleep. So we worked our way back to College Park and crashed for the evening.

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Off to DC

Apr 14, 2007

This was one of the more complicated starts to a vacation in recent memory, and it began months ago with the fact that historically, everyone goes away for school vacation week except us. Now that the kids are both in school, your choices of vacation weeks are limited to about 9 weeks in the summer, and everything else is shoe-horned into those weeks also. this year requires a big trip to Illinois, mostly because we didn’t do one last year, mostly because the Worldcon was a more attractive itinerary and nobody wants to do two big vacations only a few weeks apart. This year the Worldcon’s in Japan, so no conflict there, and the summer would be completely opened up for an Illinois trip if we opted to go somewhere else at a different time of year. So last fall I seized upon the idea of going to Washington DC and hitting a few other spots in Virginia, all places Beth and I have been to but not since Chloe came along.

The clincher for this trip was that Placido Domingo was singing in Die Walkure at the Washington Opera today, and more or less coincidentally I happened to come upon this bit of information just before single tickets were about to go on sale last November. So after getting some buy-in that this would be the way to go, I ordered myself a ticket the day they went on sale, and subsequently the whole thing sold out months in advance. So now we were committed. Since it’s Wagner, there was a 6pm start time, which necessitated leaving on Friday to get down to DC, but that was ok, just start the school vacation a day early, the kids would be the last to complain about missing a day of school.

This was the plan until sometime around the beginning of February when Justin’s cub Scout pack had their annual pinewood derby competition, and by some miracle his car won. Miracle because while generally the winners are those who’ve done engineering studies on the various aerodynamic properties of different car shapes and weight distribution schemes, Justin and beth just came up with a cool design and went with that, to the point that his den leader had to gouge out some extra weight from the underside of the car just before the race in order for it to meet the weight limit. As I say, Justin won handily, if inexplicably, and the top three finishers get to advance to the district competition. This is seen as a bad thing by those who’ve been there because unlike the local competition, which takes a couple of hours out of a Friday evening, this district thing is an all-day affair. The odds of winning are much reduced because now the engineers are all competing against one another. Marlborough had the option of hosting the event, but the pack leader’s half-hearted attempt to find someone to organize it came to naught and it went to another troop in Milford. And they decided the optimal day for the pinewood derby district competition would be Saturday, April 14.

Now I wasn’t about to give up domingo and Walkure for another marathon derby-fest, which take any fun you may have actually watching the cars race and stretch it out to epic lengths by the painstaking weigh-ins and endless testing of the tracks before the competition even begins, followed by the snappy patter of the MC shilling for the cold pizza and left over concessions from the previous year’s event. And there was no good argument for Justin to miss the race, since he didn’t have a ticket to Walkure and it wasn’t like we were leaving for Disney or something he really wanted to do instead.

So after some deliberation, I came upon a solution. I would fly one way to Washington on Friday night so I could see the opera the next day as planned. And then Beth and kids would drive the eight hours down to DC Saturday after the competition was over. Beth even agreed to this, even though she’d never driven that far on her own and isn’t always the best candidate to stay awake in a moving car, particularly once the sun goes down. That part of plan worried me, as did how I was going to get to the hotel from the airport, since the only cheap one-way flights were on BWI, and didn’t get there until after 10pm. The mass transit options to get into the DC area that late in the evening were marginal at best, and I wasn’t about to spend more than the cost of the plane ticket to take a cab into DC, even just as far as the Metro.

So then I thought of another scenario that would be more palatable to Beth too. I would drive down Saturday morning with all our stuff. Beth would take the kids to the competition, and afterwards all 3 of them would hop on a plane and fly to BWI. the additional expense of flying 3 people instead of one would be offset by staying 1 less night in DC. I had originally picked out a nice hotel around Dupont Circle that would’ve been great for the original 3-night stay arriving at a reasonable hour, but for a 2-night whirlwind tour, there was no point paying top dollar for the extra amenities, so I changed the reservation to a Quality Inn that was just inside the beltway on the BWI side of DC, and only 4 blocks from a Metro station. That made it easy for everyone to get to, by car or subway. Ideally I would’ve just driven there and Beth and the kids would take the Metro, but again the times were a little late and with 2 kids late at night I couldn’t vouch for the neighborhood between the station and the hotel. So I added one extra wrinkle to make it more complicated, but it was ultimately the option we went with and it worked flawlessly.

I was up bright and early this morning and out of the house with the minivan full of everyone’s stuff by 6:15am or so. I don’t know that I’ve ever done a 7-hour drive by myself, and I was worried about having enough energy left to sit through 5 hours of Wagner, but it worked out just fine. Spent much of the drive down 95 listening to a met broadcast of Gounod’s Faust that I’d recorded a couple of years ago and just gotten around to transferring to CD. Made it to the airport around 1:30, a little ahead of schedule. The plan was to leave the car at the airport for Beth, so when she and the kids arrived this evening they could just hop in and drive the last 25 miles or so to the hotel. Since I had some extra time, I scouted around the terminal to figure out what concourse they’d be arriving in, and parked the car as near to that section of the airport as I could. Then I found the B30 Metro bus to Greenbelt station (which runs every half hour or so that time of day), and I was at the hotel by 3pm or so, with enough time to change and call Beth to tell her where the car was. Then it was back to the subway to go into Foggy Bottom and the Kennedy Center.

Although it’s not a long walk from the nearest station, it was starting to rain a little bit by the time I got to the Kennedy Center around 5pm. this gave me enough time to wander around a bit and find the KC Café on the terrace level where I could grab a sandwich and can of soda for $11, and I was in the opera house and in my seat with plenty of time to spare. I chatted briefly with the guy next to me, who had come from Philadelphia just for the occasion, apparently they have the same dearth of Wagner there as we do in Boston. The opera was spectacular, it was announced beforehand that Domingo had a cold but he was going to sing anyway (Siegmund only has to worry about the first two acts, which together are about as long as most other complete operas). This was billed as an “American” Ring, although the general look was more like “Sky Captains and the World of Tomorrow”, without the giant robots. The director was Francesco Zambello, who changed the setting and costumes so that Hundig’s house looks like a cabin in the woods with trophy heads mounted on the walls, Wotan’s castle is a corporate board room overlooking an art deco city skyline, and the 8 rhine maidens are 30’s-era parachutists. I’m pretty sure the singers are miked, the hall is so big I don’t know how they couldn’t be, and they sounded unnaturally loud at different times. Besides Domingo, and Alan Held as Wotan, the rest of the cast was unknown to me but sounded great, colds notwithstanding. Although I have CD’s of the ring and the Met/Levine version on video, I’m sure I’ve never watched or listened to Walkure straight through before. It’s been years since I’ve watch the tape, but the music is relatively familiar now, so it was great to see it synched up with the action and realize what’s actually going on at certain key spots. The second act, which runs about 95 minutes or so, is gripping from start to finish. Wotan’s confrontation with Brunnhilde in act 3 goes on a little long, and Siegmund and Sieglinde at the end of act 1 start to get creepy, but that’s just me. There was quite the variety of people in the crowd, including more kids than I would expect to see at the opera, particularly this one. Alan Held played Wotan as much more angst-ridden than what I remember from james morris. I didn’t recognize Sieglinde, but it was nice to see it played by someone other than the visually unconvincing Jessye Norman. Well worth the trip, no troubles with staying awake, I was back at the hotel around 12:15. beth had made it there with no troubles, everything ran smoothly, nobody got lost, and the kids were trashed. A long day for everyone. Not the way I originally envisioned it, but it seemed to work out fine.

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Last day in LA

Aug 27, 2006

Last real day of vacation, tomorrow will be mostly on a plane and be three hours shorter than normal. Beth and the kids were barely awake when I left the room at 9:30 this morning. Grabbed another fruit frappacino and muffin at Starbucks on my way to the convention center, not something you’d want to make a habit of. I think I liked the tangerine better than the pomegranate.

It was after 2pm when I came back to the room, everyone had finally gotten out of bed and spent some time at the pool and were just having lunch in the room when I returned. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, so Beth gave me half her sandwich, then we headed for the car to drive out to our old friend Robbie’s house in La Quinta for dinner. Robbie grew up two doors down from Beth in Framingham, she and her husband moved out here shortly after their son Brett was born about 12 years ago. We saw them when we were here in ’96 when Chloe was a baby and Brett was only a couple of years old and they were living in Palm Desert. Alan was working then, but ended up quitting the business he was in and never really did anything after that. They also have a daughter who’s about 8 or 9, but Alan and Robbie have been separated for the last year or so, she’s still here but he moved back to the Boston area. So now Robbie’s a single mom, trying to get divorced and work and raise two kids and make ends meet and living in the desert. She sounds like she’s keeping it all together, but it must be a lot of work. We got to her house about 5pm and spent a few hours there and ordered out pizza, the kids got along together fine, but by 9 or so it was time to hit the road, it took about 2 hours to get back to the hotel, the kids were strung out by then , such that it took them a little while to fall asleep, but they’ll really be in for a shock tomorrow when we get home late but it won’t feel that late to them.

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Worldcon marathon

Aug 26, 2006

Had the day to myself today since Beth was taking the kids to Legoland. They didn’t want to get up this morning, still trashed from a long day at Disney, but she got them going and out the door around 8:30 or so. It’s about an hour’s drive south to Carlsbad, and they spent the entire day there, not returning to the hotel until about 9pm. My rundown of the today’s festivities at the Worldcon is at Mataglap SF.

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